Swiss voters in a referendum have rejected a proposal by a nationalist party to automatically deport foreigners who commit even low-level crimes. The move was welcomed by human rights groups.
The final tally showed 58.9 percent of voters opposed the proposal to automatically deport foreigners found guilty of committing crimes, Swiss national broadcaster SRF announced on Sunday evening.
The vote saw a turnout of more than 62 percent, higher than for any other Swiss referendum since 1992, according to the gfs.bern polling institute.
The proposal had been put forward by the anti-immigration Swiss People's Party (SVP), which is the largest single party in the country's Federal Assembly.
Swiss voters had already agreed to a proposal six years ago to expel foreigners who commit offenses such as rape or armed robbery after serving their jail term. But the plan was watered down, allowing judges to avoid automatic deportation in certain cases.
Under the extended plan, individuals would have also been automatically expelled for lesser offenses, such as traffic violations, if they committed a second violation within a 10-year time span.
The controversial plans faced tough opposition from activists and business leaders who said it would violate human rights and complicate relations with the European Union.
A quarter of the people living in Switzerland have a foreign passport, the majority of whom originate from other European countries. More than 10,000 people could have been affected if the initiative had passed.
A question of national identity
Opinion polls ahead of the referendum suggested a tight vote, with campaigners on both sides using emotional imagery to invoke reactions.
The SVP used the visual of a white sheep on top of the Swiss national flag kicking away a black sheep. Opponents meanwhile presented the image of a tattered swastika while placing Switzerland in 2016 next to 1933 Nazi Germany and the official onset of apartheid in South Africa in 1948.
While opponents argued that the initiative sought to circumvent the courts by turning deportations of foreigners into an administrative formality, supporters of the plan campaigned behind the idea of national unity.
The Swiss chapter of Amnesty International said it was relieved that the proposal had been rejected, adding that further initiatives aiming to change the country's immigration law in future should also be fought.
German politicians also welcomed the developments. German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said that the Swiss people had demonstrated that "there's a difference between populist slogans and public opinion."
mm, ss/jlw (dpa, epd, KNA)